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Bid for Smoking Ban Flames Out Once Again

With legislation to ban smoking in public workplaces failing for the fourth legislative session in a row, proponents and critics say they are ready for another face-off in 2015.

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For a fourth consecutive legislative session, a proposed statewide ban on smoking in public workplaces fell short, as critics argued that such a ban could unconstitutionally curtail businesses’ freedom. And while supporters have said that they would renew their efforts in the 2015 session, opponents say they are ready for another face-off and that such legislation may even be obsolete.

Proposed smoking bans have been introduced in various forms since 2007. In both 2007 and 2011, legislation that would have banned smoking in public workplaces got through the House but died in the Senate. In 2009, a proposed ban died after supporters said it had enough support to pass the House but would not be able to get through the Senate.

During the 2013 session, state Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, and state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, each filed proposed smoking bans, but neither bill received a committee hearing. Kevin Cruser, Crownover’s chief of staff, said the legislation died when Ellis’ and Crownover’s staffs determined it lacked the necessary support in the Senate. 

Because of the strong opinions on both sides of the issue, voting on smoke-free legislation “takes a lot of time on the House floor,” Cruser said, and they “didn’t see the need to put the House through that again” if the bill could not get through the Senate. 

Proponents of public smoking bans cited public health concerns, arguing that secondhand smoke's dangers make public smoking an unfair burden on bystanders.

“We’ve pushed the ball down the field quite a bit, but we need to get those most important last few yards,” said Jeremy Warren, Ellis’ communications director. He added that though Ellis has not decided for sure, he would probably introduce similar legislation in 2015.

State Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, who helped defeat a proposed ban during the 2011 session, said “there’s nothing wrong with trying” to pass smoke-free legislation. But Deuell, a family physician, added that given the Legislature’s conservative makeup, such a bill would probably not pass.

Deuell said he would continue to vote against smoke-free legislation because he does not believe “constitutionally, we have a right to tell business owners what to do.” 

“You can choose where you work,” he added.

Under current state law, individual employers or buildings can ban smoking in their facilities.

The prospect of a potential state ban appears to be popular among Texans. About 74 percent of Texas voters support a so-called smoke-free law, with 62 percent strongly supporting and 12 percent somewhat supporting such a law, according to a February survey conducted by the polling firm Baselice & Associates. A similar survey from 2011 found 70 percent in favor of such a law.

Crownover said she believes a smoke-free law has enough support to pass in the House and Senate but is still “one or two votes short” of the two-thirds majority needed for the Senate to debate a bill. She said she plans to introduce similar legislation in the 2015 session.

"Tobacco smoke doesn't just burn your eyes and make your hair and clothing smell bad," Crownover said. "One person should not be allowed to expose another person to their unfortunate choice."

No Republicans in the state Senate have come out in favor of smoke-free legislation, something Crownover said would be essential for such a law to pass.

"We'll have to see who's back" in the Legislature to see if such a proposal might pass, Deuell added.

Businesses in municipalities that prohibit smoking in public workplaces have not suffered, said Claudia Rodas, a campaign manager for the advocacy group Smoke-Free Texas. Rodas cited studies examining major business centers in Texas — such as Houston and El Paso — where smoking is prohibited in public workplaces.

“The rights of an employee and customer to breathe clean air in these restaurants and these bars are more important” than those of a business to determine whether smoking is allowed, she added. 

But Deuell said Texans opposed to smoking in public workplaces “would be perfectly free to go to their employer” and ask for a ban on smoking at the facility. 

Smoke-free legislation would save the state about $30 million in Medicaid expenses, Crownover said, citing a fiscal analysis from the 2011 legislative session. The savings would come principally from reduced hospitalizations for smoking-related diseases.

But Deuell suggested a ban on smoking in public workplaces might soon become obsolete, adding that he could not “even think of a place that allows smoking anymore.”

“Employers on their own are making the right decision,” Deuell said. 

Rodas said she is not sure what the bill’s failure to pass this session means for the future of smoke-free legislation in Texas.

“Every legislative session, we take it as a clean slate,” she said, adding that this session’s surge in new legislators shaped Smoke-Free Texas’ lobbying strategy. 

Though the Legislature did not debate smoking in public workplaces this session, lawmakers still addressed the question of secondhand smoke and smoking in public places. In April, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, amended a Senate bill to include a provision prohibiting smoking on Capitol grounds. 

That bill, which dealt with the State Preservation Board, passed the Senate without Whitmire’s amendment attached.

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